Against Process Philosophy

Disclaimer: this is a text about Process Philosophy, the set of philosophical theories in which everything is in time and time plays a fundamental constitutive role in the nature of being. Dynamics takes precedence over static and so on.

If you found the disclaimer intriguing, you may enjoy the writing, if you found it boring and don’t care about philosophy, skip it.

Why Process Philosophy

After taking in that the Incomplete Nature project is like a Lakatos Core Belt epistemically, if not a full blown system, in the philosophical sense of system, I decided some weeks ago to understand what Deacon means by emergence by studying Bateson and process by studying Whitehead. Usually the word “emergence” can be substituted by “magic” without loss of information, but I know Deacon knows better, so I went to the source. Process can only sometimes be substituted by “magic” without loss of information, it normally means something, but I wanted to zero-in on what Deacon means by it, and so there too I went to the source, Alfred North Whitehead (the other guy in Principia Mathematica),
Bateson was extremely productive and I have used it a lot already, and expect to continue to do so.
Whitehead needs steelmanning, badly so. 
Whitehead however is very hard to steelman  (the opposite of strawman, that is, trying to create the best version of).
Whitehead is a confusing and terrible writer, who states things as if self evident and frequently enmeshes his ideas together with his ideas about religiosity, which are a product of Victorian England + some version of positivism much more than a product of reasoning.
Gladly there are procedures to execute in cases like this. I can read other people who steel-manned him better, so I went ahead to the Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy and read Whitehead, and Process Philosophy and also checked one or two links online. It was better than the Process and Reality Book, but still not compelling at all.
As a last resort, I’m showing my understanding of process philosophy below and asking, if you know any better arguments that I haven’t found, if you could steelman it in a way that would make it more attractive.
The Leaky Monads theory of reality
Whitehead has an “all window” view of reality, which many commentators describe as being like Leibniz’s Monads, because containing all the world, while at the same time open instead of closed. A monad with a window, or, better, a monad that is all window.
This view I had seen endorsed first in “The Doors of Perception” where Huxley praises that conception because it seems to him that mescalin opens more access to reality, and for that to be true, some version of metaphysics where everything is connected to everything else has to be true, and what needs explanation would be why we have these brains and bodies that deprive us of the natural state of full contact with everything. Basically Huxley had motivated cognition after having a great drug based experience to pretend that the experience was revealing more and deeper aspects of reality, and the idea that our sensory parts and nervous systems are “filters”  blocking out the possibility of universal binding suited his desired bottom line very well.
Numbers as subtance-less relata
The natural number 2 illustrates some interesting toy aspects of what I think moves minds like Whitehead’s. You can’t have 2 without getting all the other numbers and operations with it. 2 is 2 in virtue of being half of 4, twice 1, the cubic root of 8, 34-32, the number of Pi’s necessary to make a radius as long as it’s circle, and a bunch of other things. There is no 2 without Peano’s axioms (or an equivalent set of axioms that determines the same extension). The natural 2 is nothing but the set of relations it holds to the other natural numbers. Like a castle of cards, you can’t take 2 out and have the rest of the structure standing, being 2 is just the relative position of the card in the castle.
The Real number 2 is different but equally vacuous of substance and constituted uniquely by relations to other real numbers.
In that regard, 2 is a lot like southwest.
Metaphysics of total relation
Maybe then that also holds of all entities in this world of ours, maybe all things are in their relation to other things as well.
Coming from a man who dedicated 8 years to writing Principia Mathematica, this is just what I would expect.
However that seems empirically false. It is a Metonymic fallacy. Though some things like numbers have conditional dependencies on constructs of which they are parts, there are limits which separate these domains completely.
… and where it breaks. 
Color has dimensions which all need to be together, hue, chromaticness, and brightness. You can’t make a color that has the first two but not the third, for the same reasons you can’t make a 3 without a 4. But you can definitely make a color without a number, and vice versa. These are what your Gärdenfors calls separate conceptual domains. Sotala (2015c):

Gärdenfors defines two quality dimensions to be integral if a value cannot be given for an object on one dimension without also giving it a value for the other dimension: for example, an object cannot be given a hue value without also giving it a brightness value. Dimensions that are not integral with each other are separable. A conceptual domain is a set of integral dimensions that are separable from all other dimensions: for example, the three color-dimensions form the domain of color.

From these definitions, Gärdenfors develops a theory of concepts where more complicated conceptual spaces can be formed by combining lower-level domains. Concepts, then, are particular regions in these conceptual spaces: for example, the concept of “blue” can be defined as a particular region in the domain of color. Notice that the notion of various combinations of basic perceptual domains making more complicated conceptual spaces possible fits well together with the models discussed in our previous definition. There more complicated concepts were made possible by combining basic neural representations for e.g. different sensory modalities.

So it seems to me false that the constitutive aspects of things require relation to all other things, and it seems that Whitehead thinks so because he thought about principia mathematica for too long, not because he would naturally arrive at that conclusion if he knew present day cognitive science, and could see the math domain from the outside.
Length in time and Reality
Then there is the question of whether things can only be in time or not. This argument loses a lot of force if we concede that actually not everything is connected to everything by some (different) relations.
To me this question is either ill-posed or useless.
 If we are asking the substantive question of what has more reality, what is permanent in time (such as some intensional properties in physics, art according to Nietzche in Human all too human, or what some symbols stand for, or types) or what is ephemeral in time (Heraclitus’s flow, the ever-changing wavefunction, tokens in phil of mind) the question seems ill posed. We know that ephemeral things come and go, and stable things stay a little longer, and sometimes are instantiated again elsewhere or elsewhen, there is no further fact which would determine which of these deserves more reality than the other. If we know what ephemeral means, and we know what permanence means, and we can label stuff we encounter correctly with these labels, we are done. There is no further work to distinguish to what degree what is more or less real.
When codes, labels, language, and evolution agree that something is not worth mentioning. 
The more permanent stuff definitely seems to depend on time to be what it is – say, an Ox or an Axe. That however is just because we
1) are only able to label stuff that lasts a while
2) Can only communicate about stuff that could be re-instantiated
3) we and evolution only care about what sticks around, no reason to pay attention to what doesn’t.
So there seem to be both fleeting things and more permanent things, and we can only label and talk about the more permanent stuff, which is not to be confused with ‘only the entities that are in time are real”, it’s just that those are the only ones that matter.
This is the first ground to say that process philosophy isn’t useful.
The second ground is more interesting: Because the process of labeling and coding stuff (which would be called prehension and differentiation possibly within the process paradigm) is what generated enormous scientific progress, computers, analytic philosophy, linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, memetics among others, it has a decent track record as a good way to think about the world in order to find out new interesting things. As a core belt and a research program, it has generated a lot of benefit.
Contrasting that with holistic perspectives, and process philosophy, whose only claims are of the form “If you label X time-less-ly you have failed to capture the reality of X”.  What has this type of program achieved? Nearly nothing. It is reminiscent of Hegel, Bergson, Heidegger. It doesn’t create a niche that people can explore in order to have a more accurate understanding. It just casts an emotion upon the senses which says “yes, yes! this is right!” and then shuts down curiosity lane and discovery avenue. It is a curiosity stop-sign.
Feynman said once that if all knowledge would be destroyed but he could send one message to the future people, he would send the notion of (1) atomism, the sense that all large things are made of smaller, identical things.
That is amazing, because in fact, they are not. (2) Things are made of chromodynamic clouds spread over abstract conceptual spaces with continuously decreasing amounts of entanglement to other things elsewhere in the universe.
Idea (2) may not be the ultimate reality, but it certainly is more true than (1). However (2) is not actionable in any way. It doesn’t do anything
That is how I feel about process philosophy. Even if it is true, it  is not conducive to knowledge acquisition except as a guiding star intuition.
It has been relegated to a footnote in the history of philosophy, and I would say correctly so, like a note in passing: “Oh, and by the way, most things, and nearly all things that matter are only in time, and dynamic descriptions would be the only way to fully capture them. However because of the way information processing and memory storage works, in humans and in computers, we will continue using labels and maps, we will continuing using the language of code, and just talk and act on the more permanent stuff that can actually be labeled and manipulated.”
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One thought on “Against Process Philosophy

  1. Hi Diego,
    I would like to see an elaboration of the proposed footnote-in-passing. Specifically, how are “dynamic descriptions”, or rather, descriptions of dynamics distinct from “labels and maps” and “code” of “the more permanent stuff”? If a description well-describes a dynamical system, it is because the description describes what is true of a system over time. Even if there is no material or energetic permanence, there is a logical permanence implied by correctness of the description, since the description itself is not changing as the dynamical system itself is changing.

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